Wrongful Death Settlements Involving Municipalities…

A Personal Injury Case Study

Wrongful death settlements can vary based on factors such as age and earning capacity of the deceased. This case study involves a municipality, raising issues of sovereign immunity. We’ll review the incident, liability, injuries, negotiations, and the final case resolution.

The Incident…

Norman, a 55-year old man, was walking down the street in a local city early in the morning when the waste management team drove by him and picked up a garbage can, emptying it in front of him. He continued to walk, however as he approached the garbage truck they dropped the garbage can that they had just picked up and it landed directly on Norman.

Though it would not normally cause a death, due to Norman’s fragile nature (he had just underwent open heart surgery and had lost a lot of weight), the garbage can caused fatal injuries.


Under normal circumstances the municipality that employed the garbage men would be liable, however the legal privilege of sovereign immunity can shield a city, state or federal government from lawsuits. In this case, Norman’s estate needed to show negligence on the part of the city employees in order to attach some liability, improving their chances of getting a wrongful death settlement.

Additionally, when suing a municipality you must submit a government claim form putting the city on notice of your intention to sue. Norman’s estate submitted the government claim form within the 6 month statute of limitations indicating that they intended to sue both the city as well as the employees.

Cases against municipalities are very complicated and Norman’s heirs had to hire an attorney as a result. The attorney took the case on contingency and agreed to advance the costs associated with the suit including, but not limited to, an investigation into whether the employees were negligent in any way.

The attorney discovered that both of the employees were intoxicated at the time they dropped the garbage can on Norman. Because they were negligent, this created an exception to the sovereign immunity rule allowing Norman to sue both the city (for vicarious liability) and its employees for negligence and negligent supervision.


The garbage can that fell on Norman weighed approximately 50 pounds and fell directly on his head. Due to his very fragile condition and the amount of time he remained on the ground in inclement weather, Norman’s injuries proved fatal. His injury occurred just before daylight in the morning and there were no other pedestrians on the road.

The employees either did not notice Norman (due to their intoxication) or they were attempting to get away undetected. It wasn’t until daylight broke that an off-duty police officer driving by saw Norman. By the time he was able to summon paramedics, it was too late.


Due to the sovereign immunity issue, negotiations were slow and arduous. For 8 months, the city stated that they would not accept liability for the case. When Norman’s estate attorney advised that the employees were working while intoxicated, the attorneys for the city quickly changed their position.

Norman’s attorney demanded $500,000 as a first offer which was rejected within a week. The basis for the rejection was that Norman had a pre-existing condition and placed himself in peril by walking on the street before dawn. His estate attorney argued that a defendant in a personal injury case take the plaintiff “as they come,” whether fragile or not.

He further argued that Norman was walking as he had every morning, per his doctor’s direction in order to heal from his recent surgery. The high dollar amount of the wrongful death settlement offer corresponded to the fact that Norman was the primary income earner in his family, making $50,000 per year as an analyst with at least 10 years remaining in work time.

Without his income, the family would experience financial ruin since his wife had been a stay-at-home mother and homemaker for the 30 years of her marriage. A counter offer of $450,000 was made by Norman’s estate, but they could not afford to accept much less.

The insurance company argued that Norman had life insurance that would cover the mortgage, college expenses for the two adult children and would leave Norman’s wife comfortable. This however was not considered because other sources of payment are basically collateral sources which are not factored into settlements.

Final Settlement…

The case settled for $420,000 plus funeral expenses for Norman. While it was not part of the personal injury component, the district attorney of the county in which the accident occurred considered charges for negligent homicide against the two employees (if it could be proven that they knew Norman was injured and that rendering aid would have saved his life). That case is on-going.

Important Points…

  • When attempting to sue a municipality, it is common to run into sovereign immunity issues. You will want to retain a lawyer for these types of personal injury cases.
  • Wrongful death settlements against municipalities are often made confidential to avoid excessive litigation by people who know the facts behind previous cases.
  • When employees are found to be negligent, this can impute vicarious liability onto an employer for failure to supervise, failure to adequately train or for general negligence.

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